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Posts Tagged ‘Helen Mirren’

There’s something tremendously familiar and comforting about The Duke (one of the last films directed by Roger Michell before his recent death) and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that this was part of the plan. It sits comfortably within the hats-and-fags period comedy drama genre which the British film industry is extremely adept at, it stars a couple of much-loved national treasures, and – based on the audience response at the screening I went to – it shows every sign of being a genuine crowd-pleaser.

The story is based on one of those odd little true stories which has largely slipped from public recollection, although a gag referencing it is still there at the root of British cinema’s most enduring franchise (which the movie duly references). The year is 1961 and the government has just stumped up £140,000 to save a Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington ‘for the nation’, much to the annoyance of Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent), an aspiring playwright and genuine social justice warrior resident in Newcastle (‘that’s not a real name,’ someone complains, not unreasonably).

Bunton is, not to put too fine a point on it, a fully-paid-up member of the awkward squad. (In reality he was a disabled former bus driver, something the film opts not to explore.) His current campaign is to secure free television licenses for pensioners, which he pursues to the point of reconfiguring his set so it can only receive the commercially-funded channels and then doing a short stint of porridge for non-payment.

Bunton’s wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren) has had enough of all this and orders him to pack it in. He agrees, after one last trip to London – which just happens to coincide with the Goya painting disappearing from the National Gallery one night. Soon enough Kempton and his son (Fionn Whitehead) are building a secret false back on the spare room wardrobe to hide the purloined portrait, making very sure that Dorothy never finds out about it. Kempton’s plan is to hang onto the picture until the government agrees to his demands to provide free TV licenses to the elderly – but his biggest problem may be persuading anyone to take him seriously in the first place…

There’s a big debt to many of the classic Ealing comedy films here, many of which concerned a plucky little everyman and his travails in dealing with the establishment – the setting is just after that of Ealing’s heyday, but the look of the film is still very familiar. (In a canny move, the producers have saved themselves a bit of cash by digitally inserting Jim Broadbent into archive footage of early-60s London.) Broadbent makes the most of some very funny lines, especially during the courtroom scenes towards the end of the film. But this is also a film with a contemporary sensibility, with the characters given pathos and emotional depth; there is a subplot about a family tragedy which it’s hard to imagine in a film of this kind from a previous generation.

Some critics have already begun suggesting this is a timely film – slightly ironic, this, given that it was presumably filmed pre-pandemic in order to receive its world premiere in late 2020. One would hope that this is because the film does raise questions about the degree to which we are dependent upon each other as a society, and the extent to which we should consider our collective requirements rather than remaining focused on individual success. On the other hand, Bunton’s determination to do something about elderly people being forced to pay for their TV license is potentially problematic: there is certainly a case to be made for certain specific groups being exempt. But on the other hand the issue of old people being criminalised for not paying for a license is the kind of fig-leaf pretext regularly adopted by those who would like to see the BBC completely abolished on ideological grounds. I strongly doubt most of the key players in this movie would be on board with that, and one could wish they’d handled that particular element of the story with a slightly lighter touch or different approach; as it is, one can imagine the film being adopted and championed in pursuit of an agenda it doesn’t honestly represent.

It’s not as if the film doesn’t do the usual thing of playing rather fast and loose with the actual historical events it depicts – events which actually played out over a number of years are portrayed here as occurring over a vague but shorter period, while the background to a key third-act plot twist appears to have been somewhat misrepresented, presumably at the request of the Bunton family (who were involved in the production).

Nevertheless, this is a solid production and a very likeable film – as I’ve already mentioned, this is simply the kind of film which the British film industry makes very well (often several times a year). You can sort of imagine something like it turning up on TV and being perfectly acceptable on the small screen, but it does have a cinematic polish and ambition, and some very strong performances. Helen Mirren is saddled with a slightly thankless role as, essentially, a scold with a comedy regional accent, but delivers this effectively; the film is really Jim Broadbent’s from beginning to end, balancing some quite broad comedy with moments of poignancy and sincere human decency: if it had received a wider release you would Broadbent to be in the running for at least a few gongs. (Matthew Goode works some kind of minor miracle by actually managing to make an impression opposite Broadbent as his barrister, in the courtroom sequences.)

There’s a lot to like about The Duke, not least its basic positivity and optimism about humanity in general; that it manages to put this across without being sentimental and actually working as a comedy as well as a drama is rather impressive. There is a sense in which it is, undoubtedly, the kind of film you’ve seen before, probably more than once, but on its own terms it is a superior and very effective production.

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Odd to think that the first of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films will be twenty years old in less than six months (the same is true of the first Harry Potter adaptation, of course). Or, to put it another way, it’s now very nearly equidistant in time between the present moment and the appearance of another great fantasy film of decades past – I speak of John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur.

The comparison is a pertinent one as Boorman tried for many years to mount his own adaptation of Lord of the Rings, never quite managing it (given one of his ideas was for the Hobbits to be played by children being dubbed by adults, perhaps it’s just as well). But apparently a lot of the Rings prep work ended up informing Excalibur, and you can perhaps trace a connection between the syncretic Arthurian mythology, built up over a thousand years, and the primal European myths which inspired Tolkien’s legendarium.

Boorman puts his own spin on the Arthurian cycle, as everyone who approaches it ends up doing, focusing the story on the titular blade. The film opens in the Dark Ages (real-world history and geography is more or less elided), with ferocious warlord Uther (Gabriel Byrne) intent on becoming king, assisted – sort of – by the enigmatic, and eccentric, figure of Merlin the Magician (Nicol Williamson). It is Merlin who procures the sword of power for Uther, and Merlin who is most dismayed when Uther seems intent on simply using it to satiate his own lust for power, and other things.

One of the other things is Igraine, wife of the Duke of Cornwall (she is played by another of the numerous Boormans to appear in the film; he is Corin Redgrave). But Uther’s deal with Merlin whereby he can enjoy a night of passion with Igraine (Uther keeps his suit of armour on throughout, surely the hallmark of any sensitive lover) has unexpected consequences: Merlin takes the ensuing child, and while pursuing the magician Uther is ambushed and killed, but not before he can drive Excalibur into a block of stone, from which only the rightful heir can draw it…

This first section of the film unfolds very naturally and satisfyingly; from here on things get a bit choppier, as Boorman has to start picking and choosing which elements of the Arthurian legend to focus on. So we get the sword in the stone, the struggle faced by Arthur (Nigel Terry) as he tries to claim his throne and unite the country, the coming of the invincible Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), the founding of Camelot, Arthur’s marriage to Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi), the treachery of Arthur’s half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren) and the begetting of Mordred, the Grail Quest, and so on and so on…

Even for a film that’s pushing close to two and a half hours in length, this is a lot to handle, and Boorman omits many of the peripheral elements of the story – the May Babies are omitted, as is the story of Tristram and Isolde, along with that of Balin and the Fisher King, while the importance of Gawain (Liam Neeson) is downplayed, and Galahad is left out entirely (most of his role is given to Perceval, played here by Paul Geoffrey).

Doing the entire Arthurian legend in detail would be an undertaking beyond the scope of any sane movie – you’d be thinking in terms of a series (much as Guy Ritchie recently did), or perhaps a multi-season TV series like a cross between Game of Thrones and The Crown (this is such a patently brilliant and obvious idea I’m surprised no-one’s doing it already). So the flaws in the narrative structure of Excalibur, the jarring shifts in time and space, the odd changes of tone, are to some extent inevitable given the nature of the film.

However, the decision to frame the film almost solely as mythic fantasy is Boorman’s own: there’s relatively little grit or dirt in the world of the film, and not much sign of the common folk, either: on the rare occasions when they do appear, it’s slightly reminiscent of another great Arthurian film of roughly the same period, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You could definitely argue that the Python film has a greater sense of reality about it than Excalibur; Boorman’s film always looks good, but it’s strangely heftless and is often easy to snigger at (Uther isn’t the only character who spends all his time lumbering around in full armour, even at feasts and weddings) – the balance of otherworldly mysticism and quasi-historical grit was handled much better by the Robin of Sherwood TV show (which possibly shows hints of an Excalibur influence on occasion).

Nevertheless, there’s a huge amount the film gets right, or at least does interestingly: the central thesis of the connection between king, land, and sword is a splendid innovation, and the film handles many of the incidental moments of the story extremely well: Merlin’s mentorship of the boy king, Arthur winning the loyalty of the barons who initially refuse to acknowledge his right to the throne, and so. It is, of course, helped enormously by what history has proven to be a really impressive supporting cast – Helen Mirren doesn’t chew the scenery as Morgana, a young Liam Neeson is sweaty and energetic as Gawain, and there’s a cracking turn from Patrick Stewart as Leodegrance. When this film was made, Stewart was still best-known as an RSC stalwart: he gives his declamatory scenes and sequences where he gets to whack people with a battle-axe the full Shakespearean beans, and you come away wishing he was in the movie more.

Perhaps the fact that it’s mostly the supporting players you think this of is another flaw in the film; Terry, Lunghi and Clay are all right as the central trio, but not exactly captivating. As a result, it’s really Williamson who ends up walking away with the film – given Merlin’s disappearance from the story, this might be a fatal flaw, but Boorman contrives things so he makes a vital contribution in the climax.

In many ways the director makes sensible choices about how to bring the King Arthur story to the screen, and occasionally inspired ones (the Wagner- and Orff-heavy soundtrack, for instance). If he ends up eventually making a film which is at best flawed, that’s because the task itself is an impossible one; ‘flawed’ is still a significant achievement given Excalibur‘s sheer ambition. Nevertheless, this is still the yardstick when it comes to movie treatments of the Arthurian legend, even if it is a bit too hectic and breathless to be much more than an introduction to the cycle.

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Cinema is an emotional art form, and it can make you feel many things: awe, excitement, wonder, anger, compassion, terror. What doesn’t happen quite so much is a trip to the movies making you feel young, but I am happy to report that this is the effect that going to see Bill Condon’s The Good Liar had on me. I should make clear that this has relatively little to do with the quality of the film itelf, and much more to do with the fact that I went to a weekday matinee showing. It’s very unusual, these days, for me to be the youngest person at the showing of a movie (unless I’m the only one there), but I felt positively spring chicken-esque on this occasion. There was a very good turn-out for the movie (far more people than were at the teatime showing of Midway the previous day), and all in all it was an interesting opportunity to see how the more mature generation approach film-watching etiquette. So it was that I settled down to enjoy the new movie, doing my best to ignore the faint whistle of hearing-aid feedback, the less faint murmuring of people attempting to explain the plot to each other, the flashing and buzzing of un-switched-off smartphones, and the flagrant disregard of the allocated seating system.

Why so many oldies at this particular movie? Well, I suspect it’s mainly because of the two leads, Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren, who are both there or thereabouts when it comes to much-loved national treasure status, in addition to knocking on a bit themselves. One of the many slightly odd things about this film is that it does appear to be pitching very much to the older generation, but on the other hand it also contains a lot of things that this same generation reputedly have issues with, specifically graphic violence and fruity language.

The Good Liar opens with both McKellen and Mirren joining an online dating website for older folk, and it is almost immediately made clear that neither of them is being absolutely honest in their responses. But they seem to hit it off, even after they both come clean about the fact that they are not, as advertised, Brian and Estelle, but actually Roy and Betty: he is a distinguished gent with a vague, military background, while she is a former Oxford academic now enjoying life as a rich widow. They have a very pleasant lunch together and then go their separate ways, Betty leaving with her grandson (Russell Tovey).

The movie stays with Roy, however, which if nothing else allows us to enjoy more of McKellen’s performance. This is shaping up to be something really quite special, with the actor at his most sly and impish. Rather than toddling off home, he heads to Stringfellow’s nightclub, where it soon becomes apparent he is a professional fraudster engaged on a very slick long con with his partner Vincent (Jim Carter). His involvement with Betty is obviously also part of the build-up to another swindle.

But as the con proceeds and Roy does his best to dispel the suspicions of Betty’s grandson, it almost seems that he is starting to have genuine feelings for his intended victim. Could it be that the old rogue is finally growing a conscience and beginning to have second thoughts about his plan…?

Well, you know, Bill Condon is one of those people with a shockingly variable track record – he wrote and directed the rather good Gods and Monsters, back in the 1990s, and more recently was behind the camera for The Fifth Estate and Mr Holmes, both of which I thought were pretty decent movies. However – and here you must imagine the authorial voice of the blog taking on its gravest and most sombre tone – the case for the prosecution is arguably much more significant. Not only was Condon the perpetrator of the final couple of Twilight movies, he was also one of the writers of the bafflingly popular diversity barn-dance The Greatest Showman. So the question must be: which way is this particular movie going to turn out?

Confusingly, the answer to this may be ‘both’, as while The Good Liar is utterly ridiculous, it is also highly entertaining, although probably not in quite the way the film-makers had in mind. Condon and his associates were probably aiming to produce a gripping and unpredictable thriller, with quite a hard, dark edge to it. This they have not managed to achieve, because you would have to be a fairly undemanding viewer not to figure out which way this film is going well in advance of the denouement. On the other hand, the film does feature a lot of very good actors who are clearly having a whale of a time having fun with some rather ripe material. McKellen, for instance, is front and centre for most of the movie, and his twinkliness and smarminess are both set to maximum throughout. This is such a big performance – I would say he was overacting, without actually being hammy – that it does almost unbalance the movie.

Of course, I suspect the reason McKellen is being quite so extravagant with his performance is because he realises the film needs it in order to function. The film, as mentioned, does aspire to a considerable level of twisty-turniness, but the twists and turns are generally quite absurd and impossible to take seriously. There’s no point trying to be subtle and naturalistic in a story as daft as this one: you may as well go all in and at least try to have some fun with it. This is the approach that McKellen (and, eventually, Mirren) appear to be going for.

As an exercise in outrageous camp, The Good Liar passes the time very entertainingly, although I must say again that some key plot developments are very predictable. There is also the issue that the film was obviously conceived as a serious drama with a dark and quite vicious edge to it: there are moments of significant violence which jar very strongly with the overall tone of the movie. (I should also mention that the film indicates that the British obsession with events during and just after the Second World War also shows no signs of abating.) There is also something which feels a little incorrect about the structure of the climax: the thing about a good twist is that you should really be able to work it out in advance, and in this case that simply isn’t true.

Nevertheless, it’s a spry and fairly slick movie, and I suppose the nature of the story means that the predictability of some of the plot isn’t really a problem (it also compensates for the absurdity of much of the rest of it). I enjoyed watching the actors do their stuff, even if I was probably laughing in the wrong places and for the wrong reasons most of the time.

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‘Why are there two enormous bald angry men in this trailer?’

I couldn’t tell if Sagacious Dave sounded more aggrieved or suspicious. ‘Because the third enormous bald angry man fell out with the second one,’ I said (I decided not to go into details of the Vin Diesel/Dwayne Johnson tiff just at that moment).

Sagacious Dave grumphed. Once again, I couldn’t really believe my luck: having talked the ursine Head of Advanced Erudition from my workplace into going to see The Meg with me last year (as readers with long memories and short change may recall), and his making vaguely positive noises about it, I took the chance on suggesting we go and see this year’s Jason Statham film as well. He had insisted on seeing the trailer first, though.

In the end the Sagacious One said yes, and off we went to the cinema, accompanied by one of his children (I wasn’t sure if the offspring actually wanted to see the movie or just see with his own eyes what the patriarch of the family did in his spare time). As it turned out, if Sagacious Dave had known going in that this was a Fast & Furious movie, I would have had a much harder job talking him into it, as he had seen one of the duff early sequels and not enjoyed it. But he hadn’t so I didn’t and there we were watching David Leitch’s Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw like two serious-minded education professionals (plus a grown-up child).

Never mind that this is officially a spin-off from the long-running Fast & Furious franchise, this coming together of genial Dwayne Johnson and Mr Jason Statham feels somehow fated. I know they’ve technically been together in the last two F&Fs, but on this occasion the movie can dispense with all the supporting cast of sidekicks and just let the pair of them get on with it, which basically boils down to frowning a lot and property damage.

There is something pleasingly purist about the straightforwardness of the plot. Some evil transhumanist terrorists have stolen a plot McGuffin and an MI6 team is sent to steal it back (some iffy editing strongly indicates their secret base is in an underground car-park under St Paul’s Cathedral in London, but I doubt this is intentional). Leading the team is Hatty Shaw (Vanessa Kirby), who is of course Mr Statham’s little sister. Things take on some of the proportions of a citrus fruit when they encounter lead terrorist operative Idris Elba, who has been given the strikingly dubious name of ‘Brixton’ and basically turned into MACH One from the old 2000AD comic. Brixton frames Hatty Shaw for the death of her own team and forces her to go on the run, having downloaded the McGuffin into her own body (of course).

Now, it turns out that Mr Hobbs and Mr Shaw are both already on the case, as depicted through a lively sequence using more split screen effects than have been seen in a movie theatre since about 1971. ‘Who are you?’ growls a bad guy, supplying this feed line with an admirably straight face. ‘I’m a giant sized can of whup-ass,’ replies genial Dwayne, who also manages to deliver this immortal dialogue deadpan. ‘Funny, I’d have thought that would have broken,’ observes Mr Statham, over in his bit of the sequence, having beaten about six people unconscious with a champagne bottle which has miraculously remained intact. Oh, friends, the joy – the joy.

Now, believe it or not, you can’t just have these two walloping people for the whole movie, and the script dutifully obliges by crowbarring in scenes establishing the moral premise of Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw. Mr Hobbs gets a scene with his young daughter (who has had a facelift since F&F 8) and Mr Shaw gets a scene with his mum (still Helen Mirren, who has clearly realised this is the kind of film where you don’t have to worry too much about acting), and it turns out both of them are carrying an inner sadness, because they are estranged from their families. Could it be that all the chasing about and hitting people that will come over the next two hours will bring about a rapprochement? Hint: yes.

So, the CIA (embodied by an uncredited Ryan Reynolds, who is roaringly OTT even by the standards of this kind of film) puts genial Dwayne and J-Stat together to find Hatty Shaw and the missing McGuffin (‘No ****ing way!’ howl the duo in unison) and hopefully fend off the marauding Brixton. They chase about London for a while and blow a lot of it up. Then they go to an evil base in Russia and chase about there for a while, blowing much of that up too (the evil base is clearly meant to be under the Chernobyl plant, but this has been snipped from the script presumably because they don’t want to be seen to be jumping on the bandwagon of that TV show). Then they all go off to Samoa to blow most of there up too (Cliff ‘Maori Jesus’ Curtis appears as Mr Hobbs’ elder brother).

On the way out I asked Sagacious Dave what he’d thought of it (his son had been sitting between us so I hadn’t heard his reaction to the choicer moments of the film). ‘That was very congruent,’ he said, with a beatific smile upon his face. It turned out this meant he thought it cleaved very admirably to the requirements of the action movie genre. And indeed it does: lots of cars and even a few buildings are demolished, Mr Statham gets to beat up multiple people simultaneously in more than one scene, and genial Dwayne gets to do a Samoan war dance before dragging a helicopter out of the sky using sheer muscle power. (If, as has been suggested, the fight scenes are carefully choreographed so both stars take exactly the same number of punches, for contractual reasons, it is not at all obvious.) But it also entertains mightily as a knockabout comedy film, with the two leads sparring breezily and overcoming some very Carry On-level humour. Thankfully the film does have a sense of its own ridiculousness and plays up to this just enough: it is, of course, absurd to suggest that Dwayne Johnson (an actor so monolithic that compared to him J-Stat is described as the ‘small, subtle’ one) can evade an international manhunt by putting on a cap and a false moustache, but it’s such an amusing idea that the movie gets away with it. Only when Kevin Hart comes on to do the actual comic relief do things feel a bit laboured and you wish they’d get on with it.

They even find time to include the necessary character beats and reflective moments as the film continues, and we learn a bit of the back-story of both lead characters (Mr Shaw’s history has become a bit confusing, and his reinvention as misunderstood anti-hero kind of glosses over the fact he murdered Sung Kang in F&F 3, 6, and 7, but hey ho). But Leitch knows not to get too bogged down in this stuff and soon we are back to moments of priceless cinematic gold like Eddie Marsan running amok with a flamethrower or Idris Elba being head-butted in slow-motion.

Needless to say, the action choreography is lavish and immaculate, as you would expect from a movie on this scale. I think there is a strong case to be made that the Fast & Furious films have really displaced the Bond franchise as cinema’s big, brash, outrageous action series – they don’t have quite the same wit or classiness, but they don’t take themselves too seriously, know how to stick to a winning formula, and they are almost irresistibly entertaining, especially when they’re fronted by actors like Johnson and Statham.

That said, we are told that Fast & Furious 10 will mark the end of the series. Happily, though, it looks very much like future Hobbs & Shaw movies are on the cards, separate to all of that. Does the Fast & Furious series really need Vin Diesel and all of that Los Angeles street racer malarkey? On the evidence of this film, I would say not. This is a very silly film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a lot of fun, too.

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When an issue becomes grist to the mill of popcorn action movies, you know it’s achieved a certain critical mass when it comes to public awareness. So when you consider that the director of the remake of Robocop announced the film was ‘actually’ about the use of drones in combat situations, the last Gerard Butler action movie was bookended by a couple of drone bombings, the signs are clear – this topic is up for grabs as far as film makers are concerned. (You can perhaps discern this from the way that Robocop attempted to discuss the ethical implications – in an admittedly cackhanded sort of way – while London Has Fallen just used it in a specious and un-thought-through attempt to give the film verisimilitude and sophistication.)

For me, the whole issue of drone strikes, drone bombings, call it what you will – it’s one of those things that happens, and which is clearly significant in the world, but which I have no personal influence over whatsoever. As a result I sometimes feel as though I’ve recused myself from having to have an opinion about it. One almost gets the sense that this is an attitude many governments would like to foster. Hoping to achieve exactly the opposite effect is Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky.

Eye-in-the-Sky

The use of drone strikes to eliminate terrorist suspects is an enormously big and complex issue, which Eye in the Sky humanises by starting with one very simple situation and letting the audience wonder what they would do if they had their finger on the trigger, figuratively speaking: a mixed group of American, British, and Kenyan terrorists are meeting in a house on the outskirts of Nairobi. They are being monitored by a mixture of British and American military figures, a group of UK politicians, courtesy of a Kenyan intelligence operative in the vicinity. It suddenly becomes apparent that the group are in the final stages of preparing for a suicide bombing attack. The house is in a neighbourhood controlled by the radical Al-Shabab militia, making the use of conventional forces impossible. The only way to stop the attack is to blow up the house using a drone – but a young girl is sitting directly outside it, selling bread, and she will most likely be killed in the blast. What would you do?

Helen Mirren plays the officer in operational command of the mission, and Alan Rickman is her superior, liaising with a group of government ministers overseeing the operation (Jeremy Northam is one of them). Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox are the operators of the drone, and the ones who will actually have to pull the trigger. Barkhad Abdi is the Kenya intelligence agent on the scene. One of the distinctive features of Eye in the Sky is that most of these people don’t share any screen time together, their various interactions taking place entirely via electronic media – Mirren is in a bunker somewhere, Rickman is in Whitehall, Paul and Fox are in a US airbase near Las Vegas, Abdi is in Nairobi. The interconnectedness of the modern world is one of the themes of the film.

Most of the time this is a positive thing, as I’m sure most of us would agree, but it also means that a decision that once upon a time would have been left to soldiers on the scene is now open to scrutiny by higher-ups and politicians, as happens here. The situation in this film is perhaps a little contrived to achieve maximum complexity – there’s a change of mission objective, plus the fact that American citizens are targets, and the complication that it’s technically a drone strike against a friendly country – but not excessively so, and the tense wrangling between the various involved parties that ensues is utterly plausible and gripping. (Even if real-world politicians don’t worry about and discuss issues in quite this way, you would still like to believe that they do.)

The issues involved are of several different kinds – legal, political, and ultimately moral. But even then it’s not as clean-cut as that sounds – the decision as to whether a strike is legal is made by a politician, after all, while even ethical concerns seem to be getting warped by other considerations, such as whether a successful suicide bombing or excessive collateral damage from a drone strike would have the greater impact as a piece of negative publicity. Time and again the film returns to the fact that everyone, except those actually at risk of bodily harm in Kenya, is concerned about covering their own backside – the military need to be sure they are not legally culpable for any wrongdoing, the politicians need to ensure they are authorised by their superiors, and so on. (Here again the modern world intrudes – characters worry aloud about what will happen if footage from the drone ends up on YouTube, and so on.)

This may make it sound like the film is quite talky, and to some extent that’s true, but it never feels less than grounded and real. Partly this is because of the way Hood employs little details to sell the story to the audience – the fact the little girl’s parents have no ties to Al-Shabab and are surreptitiously giving her an education, the way that the drone operators have no idea about the arguments over how to proceed going on above their heads, and many others.

At one point it looks like this is going to be a film about how brave and dedicated soldiers are let down by self-serving political types – lions led by donkeys, again – but once more the film does not take the easy route – there’s a very uncomfortable scene in which Mirren basically bullies one of her own men (he is black, with an Arabic surname, and surely neither of these things is accidental) into manipulating his calculations of collateral damage down to an acceptably low percentage. Is she crossing the line, or simply doing what’s necessary to save dozens of lives? The film permits us to make up our own minds.

I personally did not feel this was a film with an axe to grind as to whether drone bombings are justified or not, but I can imagine how some people might find it a bit too sympathetic to the military-political establishment, who are presented as flawed but human. The film seems to me to simply conclude that this is a complex, complex issue entirely bereft of easy answers. We want our society to be safe, and yet we also want it to be just, and our elected officials and soldiers to be accountable, while still being able to do their jobs. If anything, the film suggests that we can’t reasonably expect all of those things. The final word goes to Rickman, whose final on-screen appearance this is, and he delivers it with all the subtlety and power you would expect from a performer of his calibre, aided by the script, which has been consistently thoughtful and precise throughout: technology may make warfare cleaner and safer (for some people at least), but it doesn’t make it easier. Eye in the Sky grips like a vice, while still managing to be moving and thought-provoking. One of the best two or three films I have seen so far this year.

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Most people, I think, would agree that it is something of a social no-no to talk about yourself too much. In the film industry, of course, the rules are often different to those of everyday life and in recent years we have seen something of a mini-boom in high-profile productions wherein Hollywood talks about itself in great detail and at considerable length. Sometimes these films are ultimately fictions, but on other occasions we are treated to a re-telling of stuff which is actually supposed to have happened – in short, we are back in ‘based on a true story’ territory again. This week’s essay in non-fictitious fiction is Trumbo, directed by Jay Roach (perhaps best known for the Austin Powers movies).

trumbo-poster

Dalton Trumbo is one of those names which is so distinctive that many people are aware of it without knowing much about the person it was attached to. The film does its best to dispel this ignorance: Trumbo was a Hollywood screenwriter in the 1940s, fond of the good life and lengthy baths, and (it would seem) especially fond of the sound of his own voice. He was also quite fond of social justice and left-wing politics, to the point where he refused to cross the picket lines of strikers.

The film opens with the HUAC commission coming to prominence and the activities and beliefs of Trumbo (here played by Bryan Cranston) and a group of other left-leaning writers coming under increasingly intense and hostile scrutiny. The crusade against them is marshalled by shrill gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), with various other right-wing movie stars weighing in too. Eventually Trumbo and the others are summoned to appear before Congress, where they will be expected to answer questions about their political beliefs and those of others they know.

Trumbo, of course, decides this is unjust and unconstitutional and ends up losing his job and being sent to jail for a year for his refusal to cooperate. With Communists officially barred from doing any work in the movie industry, things look bleak for our man – but enough cleverness and determination can take a man a long way. But is his family – especially his wife (Diane Lane) – strong enough to bear the weight of his principles?

You kind of wonder just who Trumbo has been made for, given the setting and topic don’t exactly seem calculated to appeal to people who couldn’t get a ticket for Deadpool. Roach and the screenwriters may have been hoping to bring a too-little-known tale to wider prominence, especially with the casting of the guy from the thing about the teacher, but I still think this film is mainly going to be seen by reasonably mature, well-informed people who are already broadly familiar with the subject matter. If this is the case, then Trumbo makes some serious missteps, because it is much too simplistic about many of the issues and personalities involved. Very early on, Trumbo’s young daughter asks him to explain what a Communist is, and the expalantion he gives – basically, ‘Communists are people who believe in sharing’ – is cringeworthy. My own politics are firmly left of centre, but I still think there are a few more shades to the political spectrum than that.

In a similar vein, the two sides in the struggle at the heart of the film are drawn in an equally uncompromising way. Trumbo and his fellow blacklistees are likable, witty, decent people, and Kirk Douglas is a brave, decent guy, while Hedda Hopper is virtually a Nazi and John Wayne is a bullying hypocrite. Edward G Robinson in particular is presented in a fairly unflattering light – basically, he caves in and names names before the HUAC commission, which is a particular problem given that historically he did no such thing.

So as a political drama, Trumbo is rather awkward and clumsy – just about the only time the film does anything dramatically surprising is when Trumbo meets an apparently-illiterate black inmate in prison, and the film totally undercuts the audience’s expectations of what happens next. However, as a piece of entertainment, it still has a lot to offer, because the middle section is stuffed with very funny scenes. Post prison, the only people Trumbo can get work from are Poverty Row Z-movie producers the King brothers (John Goodman has an unreasonable amount of fun as the senior brother) and he basically sets up a script farm where blacklisted Oscar-nominated writers knock out scripts about womens’ prisons and bug-eyed alien monsters. (Shades of The Front.) Having once had delusions of writing ability myself, I enjoyed the scenes of Trumbo simply being a brilliant writer under very trying conditions to be enormously enjoyable.

In the end, though, rehabilitation comes in the form of gigs writing big movies for Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger. (Trumbo seems convinced that Spartacus is some kind of all-time classic of the cinema, which strikes me as pushing it a bit – I mean, it’s two hours of brilliant entertainment, but spread across a 197-minute movie.) The nature of this kind of film means that it’s about very famous people who don’t really look like they should – so you’ve got a John Wayne who doesn’t really look like John Wayne, a Kirk Douglas who doesn’t quite look like Kirk Douglas, and so on. Once you get past trying to work out who’s supposed to be who, it’s all good fun, though. (The film cuts a few corners by intercutting actual scenes from Spartacus, with the real Douglas, with reconstructions featuring Dean O’Gorman, who plays Trumbo‘s version of him.)

What stops Trumbo from becoming either a well-meaning but bungled attempt at a serious drama or just another piece of behind-the-scenes-in-classic-Hollywood fun is the central performance of Cranston, which gives the movie serious heft and gravitas. It’s a fairly big and actorly performance, but one gets the impression that Trumbo was that kind of character anyway. Rather commendably, the film makes it clear that while Trumbo was indeed a man of deep conviction and personal integrity, he could also be a monumental pain in the neck and almost impossible to live with – and Cranston puts all of these things across impeccably.

Which, I suppose, must lead us to the regular ‘what are the chances of gongs?’ slot all of these films trawling for Oscars receive. Quite understandably, only Cranston is up for the big awards, something which I suspect would ordinarily hurt his chances. Then again, I suspect quite a lot of people would like to see him get some recognition for a steady career, even if his most notable role by far has been that thing on TV with the teacher. And, as previously noted, Hollywood does love stories about itself, especially ones with the right kind of virtue-triumphs ending. So I would say Cranston is in with a decent chance. Win or not, he is the most impressive thing in a film which obviously means well but doesn’t quite have the brains or the subtlety to be totally successful.

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‘All right,’ I said, ‘you wanted this job as Comparison Wrangler, you got it.’

‘Great,’ he said.

‘But now I’m expecting good stuff from you every time. Waterworld meets City of God and One flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest meets Dirty Dancing set the bar pretty high, but one duff comparison and you’re back to being the blog’s Motorsport and Latin America Correspondent.’

‘Right, I understand.’

‘Okay then – what did you think of the film?’

My newly-installed Comparison Wrangler thought for a moment. ‘The Iron Lady meets Batman Returns.’

It took me a moment to digest that. ‘Your job is safe,’ I eventually said.

The Iron Lady meets Batman Returns – I don’t know about you, but that’s a pitch for a film I’d really like to see. Whether it’s actually a fair description of Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock is another matter, for while this movie has its fair share of spectral visitations and performers in heavy prosthetics (which I eventually realised was what the Wrangler was on about), there is a lot of other stuff going on here, most of it highly entertaining.

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The vast majority of this film is set in the late 1950s and concerns one of the most interesting periods in the life of the legendary film director, Alfred Hitchcock. The famously corpulent artist is portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in heavy prosthetics that do indeed give him a striking resemblence to Toby Jones, while his long-suffering wife Alma is played by Helen Mirren. Following the success of the slick and glitzy thriller North by Northwest, Hitch finds himself casting fruitlessly about for a new project – the studio just wants him to do more of the same, but he feels the urge to do something completely new, unorthodox, and shocking. In the end he settles on a slightly pulpy horror novel by Robert Bloch, based on the true story of the notorious serial killer Ed Gein. The book is called Psycho.

Naturally, the studio, the censor’s office and some of those around Hitchcock are dubious about the new project – to the point where he and his wife take the decision to finance it themselves, remortgaging their home to do so. However, as production gets underway, the great director finds himself somewhat distracted from his work – not just by his usual fixation on young blonde starlets, but by darker and more peculiar shadows – and, above all, the suspicion that his wife’s loyalty to him is not as perfect as he has always suspected it to be.

I enjoyed this movie a lot, rather more than I honestly expected to, but this doesn’t really change the fact that it is a rather peculiar piece of work. Rather appropriately, it has a bit of a multiple personality problem, changing its tone and focus frequently throughout its length. It opens with a scene in which Gein (played by Michael Wincott) himself is seen committing the first of his murders, which suddenly turns comic as Hitchcock appears in frame and starts addressing the audience directly, in the style of one of the introductions to Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The idea that this is going to be a knowing piece of metafiction with blackly comic overtones does not last long, as the section of the film is played straight – until there’s another fantasy sequence featuring Gein. The film slides back and forth like this – in some places it’s a weird phantasmagorical comedy-drama, in others a serious examination of the personalities and relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville, in yet more it’s a breezy look at the making of Psycho (James Darcy plays Anthony Perkins, Scarlett Johanssen gives us a perky Janet Leigh, and Jessica Biel is Vera Miles).

Now, it doesn’t actually do any of these things badly – but the frequent shifting between them does leave one never quite sure how to react. The material with Hitchcock hanging out with Gein’s phantom is sometimes funny, sometimes creepy, sometimes just peculiar, but it’s the least prominent part of the film. All the serious acting is going on in the plotline about Hitchcock’s personal issues and his relationship with his wife. I have to say that, despite the best efforts of the make-up people, Anthony Hopkins simply doesn’t look a huge amount like Hitchcock, and his accent isn’t quite there either. If this is a problem, it’s tempting to stick some of the blame on Hitch himself, for making himself such an iconic figure at the time. Hopkins isn’t actually bad, but Mirren is certainly much better, even though hers is the less juicy part.

This is actually a rather sympathetic depiction of Hitchcock, on the whole – his well-publicised tendencies with respect to his leading ladies are acknowledged, and there’s a scene where he attempts to spy on Vera Miles changing, but on the whole the tone is so jovial and celebratory that one comes away a little bemused at just how well he comes off.

One senses that the heart of the film is really only in the behind-the-scenes stuff on Psycho. Many of the famous anecdotes about the making of the film are brought to the screen – although the allegation that Hitchcock didn’t actually direct the shower scene himself is not aired – and even people very familiar with the movie may learn some new stuff; I certainly did. Considering that Hitchcock doesn’t contain a single frame of the original movie, and only uses certain very limited elements of the soundtrack, it all feels surprisingly authentic (there’s a nice deadpan gag where Hitchcock assures the censor that the film will be much less questionable with Herrman’s ‘beautiful, lyrical’ music added to it). The best moment of the film comes when Hitchcock, listening to an audience’s reaction to the film, appears to orchestrate their response like a conductor. If nothing else Hitchcock reminded me of what a toweringly brilliant movie Psycho is.

This is an engaging and very enjoyable film, but I do sort of wonder what the point of it is – it’s not as if Alfred Hitchcock is some forgotten genius, and Psycho a great, lost, unlauded film. People started openly ripping off Hitchcock even while he was still alive and have been doing so on and off ever since, and Psycho is one of the founding texts of the modern horror movie. Hitchcock is ultimately rather superfluous and doesn’t tell us anything especially new – but as redundant movies go, it’s highly agreeable.

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Ahem. Please be aware: plot spoilers, not to mention effing and jeffing, lie ahead. 

When George Harrison died in 2001, as well as all the tributes and remembrances relating to his musical career, many tributes were paid to his work in the film industry as well. It is fair to say that, as proprietor of Handmade Films, Harrison was responsible for several examples of the kind of wrong-headed extravaganzas that did the British film industry no favours in the 1980s: Water, Shanghai Surprise, and Bullshot, as well as numerous even more obscure films. Set against this, though, one must consider his role in some of the very best films made in the UK in the same period – starting with Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and going on to include Time Bandits, Mona Lisa and Withnail & I, any one of which would be a source of pride for the average producer.

One gets the impression that Harrison and his company made a habit of riding in like the cavalry to save a production in peril after the initial backers got scared. Handmade was only set up in the first place because Harrison really wanted to see Life of Brian and could only guarantee that if he paid for it himself. Another early Handmade release was of a film struggling for political rather than religious reasons, despite the title: John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday. Made in 1979, by 1980 the original distributor had got cold feet and was attempting to sell a hacked-down version to a TV network. Handmade took the film off their hands and thus secured the reputation of one of the greatest British thrillers. (Yeah, I know I should have done this one last weekend, when it was, you know, Good Friday. Hey ho.)

Bob ‘Oskins plays Harold Shand, an upwardly-mobile London entrepreneur. Despite having a somewhat chequered past, things are looking up for Harold – he and his partner (Helen Mirren) are prosperous,  and his contacts in local government and the police are paying off, with a major redevelopment of the docklands planned, to tie in with London’s bid for the 1988 Olympics. All this will take place provided he can secure the assistance of some foreign backers: some gentlemen from New York City, representing a large family concern. No-one in this proposed agreement is using the word ‘gangster’, of course…

But then, in the space of a few hours, Harold’s Rolls Royce is destroyed by a car bomb, his best friend is stabbed to death, and two other bombs are left at establishments he has an interest in. Someone is attempting to muscle in on Harold’s manor, and they’re not playing by the usual rules. Then evidence comes to light suggesting that the bombs have come from Belfast: the newcomers are not just crooks on the make, but an IRA detachment – an enemy the like of which Harold and his firm have never faced before…

Well, the problem the original financiers had with this film was that it might be perceived to be pro-IRA in its politics. I don’t think it is, really: it’s more a case of it being anti-Thatcherite. Certainly Harold Shand has the kind of go-getting, fiercely aggressive entrepreneurial spirit that in some ways defined the 80s. His eagerness to go into business with the Americans, and his attitude to the Irish problem are also very reminiscent of the UK government of the time. While all this is astute, it’s also remarkably prescient given it was made in the same year Thatcher was first elected. It doesn’t reflect British politics of its time so much as predict them, with great accuracy.

The film’s crystal ball extends to the casting department, as The Long Good Friday is a bonanza for Before They Were Famous fans – lurking down the cast list of this film are well-known British faces like Kevin McNally, Dexter Fletcher, Derek Thompson, Gillian Taylforth, Paul Barber and Karl Howman. Famously, though, this is Pierce Brosnan’s first film. I’ve seen it listed in the paper as a ‘crime thriller starring Bob Hoskins and Pierce Brosnan’, which is pushing it a bit, as Brosnan’s in it for less than five minutes and has only one word of dialogue.

This was no doubt a source of some regret for Pierce as the dialogue in this film is uncommonly good. Barrie Keeffe’s script is tight (you have to work out a few details of the backstory for yourself, but this is not an onerous task) and filled with good lines that manage to be blackly comic while still ringing true to character and situation. ‘Right! Frostbite or verbals!’ Harold shouts, interrogating the opposition in a refrigerated meat locker. Also, appalled at the ruthlessness of his opponents: ‘You don’t crucify people outside a church! Not on Good Friday!’ And berating his former associates for their lack of commitment to the cause, ‘A sleeping partner’s one thing, but you’re in a fahkin’ coma!’

One could go on and on, but beyond the script is a ferociously committed performance by Bob Hoskins. Doing Super Mario Bros. really seems to have been the death blow to Hoskins’ career as a leading man in big movies, which is a terrible shame as this movie proves he is an immensely talented actor. Throughout the film, Harold’s predicament sees him sliding back into methods and attitudes he clearly thought he’d left behind him. And this is an unthinking regression – Hoskins plays the brutality of the gang boss chillingly (and this is a savagely violent film in parts), but he’s also affecting in the moments when Harold realises just how he’s behaving. As the film goes on, you doubt his wisdom and future prospects more and more, but you never completely lose your sympathy for him. The film’s politics are implicit, but Harold’s story grips from start to finish.

And what a finish it is: one of the best in cinema, five minutes perfectly conceived and executed, a brilliant conclusion to the story and a dark prediction as to the future of British attitudes – towards Northern Ireland, and much else. It works as well as it does because of Hoskins – a barnstorming monologue of arrogance and hubris is followed by a long, silent shot in which Harold’s world falls apart. I’ve talked about notable moments of screen acting quite a bit recently – Richard Benjamin and Yul Brynner in Westworld, Claire Danes in Stardust – but the final shot of this movie is exceptional. Hoskins’ character convincingly runs the gamut of emotions from shock, through rage and horror, and then finally to grim acceptance, and you always understand exactly what he’s feeling despite the fact he barely moves and never says a word.

To be honest, this single moment is so good it tends to overshadow the rest of the film for me. This is a shame, as The Long Good Friday is filled with great lines, interesting moments, and has a huge amount to say for itself. I tend to find American gangster movies get a little bit lost in the dubious mystique of the mob: the food and the clothes and the rest of the lifestyle are presented just a little bit too alluringly. But like Get Carter, The Long Good Friday isn’t afraid to present a rather different and much grimmer portrait of organised crime. This is a serious film and a seriously good one.

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Every now and then a film comes along that has taken a somewhat lackadaisical approach to actually getting to the screen: it’s been hanging around in editing suites or on shelves, not remotely bothered by the need to get out there and actually start recouping investments. Usually, it must be said, when a movie takes a very long time to show its face it is out of a very appropriate sense of embarrassment: everyone was surprised when the Nicole Kidman-fronted remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers took two years to get released, until they saw it, at which point it became rather obvious why they’d been putting it off and putting it off.

Having seen John Madden’s The Debt, I am somewhat mystified as to why this film has also dragged its feet, because it has nothing to be ashamed of. It was shot a couple of years ago (in the meantime one of the cast has gone on to become somewhat noteworthy for appearing in the most lucrative movie of all time) and part of me wonders if the delay has been to allow film writers to get themselves set for its appearance, as any useful discussion of the story sort of requires you to be on your game (and possibly take a run-up).

Mainly this is due to the film’s back-and-forth narrative structure, which ping-pongs between the middle Sixties and the late Nineties, and the decision to employ different actors to play the two versions of the protagonists. It’s very difficult to go into much detail about the later section of the story without ruining the film, so I’ll keep me big fat mouth shut about it (well, mostly).

In the Nineties section, Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds and Tom Wilkinson play celebrated former Mossad agents, whose fame rests on a mission into Soviet East Berlin thirty years previously. Portrayed by Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas at this point, their assignment (when not contending with incipient romantic tensions between them) is to confirm the identity of a man suspected of being a Nazi war criminal, the Surgeon of Birkenau, and then bring about his extraction to Israel where he can stand trial. As the man in question (played by Jesper Christensen) is working as a gynaecologist, making the ID requires Chastain’s character to go under cover rather more intimately than she might wish, but soon the go-ahead is given for the trio to move against the man. However, all does not go according to plan and the team find themselves forced into hiding and having to deal with a highly intelligent and utterly ruthless prisoner…

And to say more really would spoil the story of this film, which would be a shame as this is a quality production. I have to say that the earlier section of the story is rather more effective than the later part – there is genuine tension and excitement here, and some well-staged low key action. All of the main actors in this film are good, but I thought Worthington was particularly impressive, and Jesper Christensen (who seems to specialise in ‘creepy’) was also extremely effective as their target.

For some reason the later stages of the film fall a little flat by comparison and I genuinely can’t figure out why. Possibly they lack the claustrophobic tension of the East Berlin setting, or the strength of the relationships between the three main characters (they are separated in this section).

I’m not sure if the decision to recast the characters rather than whip out the aging make-up was necessarily the right one. As I said, everyone is good, and unlike some critics I had no trouble remembering who was who amongst the leads, but it can’t help but kick one out of the movie just a little to see Jessica Chastain suddenly turn into Helen Mirren. There’s also a slight problem in that part of the plot revolves around supporting characters living under false names, and it’s very difficult to be sure of who’s supposed to be who when they don’t necessarily have the same face as before (and not everyone is played by a different actor, which just seems mildly odd).

Based on an Israeli movie, I can’t help but suspect that the original version must have been slightly more powerful – the themes here, of guilt and duty and responsibility, never quite struck home with me. But the portrayal of people being driven apart by shared experiences rather than drawn together, and the crushing effect of regret over many years – these things worked well for me. The direction is efficient and the script effective, and this is a well-mounted film.

We’ve had quite a few thrillers that have been either retro or had period settings over the last few weeks – some of them extremely mannered and thoughtful, others much more gritty and action-based. The Debt does a very good job of having something for everyone in it. In the end this is an intelligent drama for adults rather than anything else, but that’s not to say its thriller trappings are entirely for show: it works quite impressively as both.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 14th 2002:

On paper, Gosford Park reads like a traditonal detective story in the Agatha Christie mode. Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) lives in a house, a very big house in the country, and one weekend in 1932 hosts a shooting party there. Amongst the guests are his film-star cousin (Jeremy Northam), his blue-blooded but potless aunt (Maggie Smith), and a large number of other upper-class worthies. It rapidly becomes obvious that there are secrets within secrets here, and tensions rise until – gadzooks! – one of those present is murdered! Twice!

The most immediately striking thing about Gosford Park is the cast, which is incredible. The murderer could open up at them with a gatling gun and still be guaranteed to leave at least one theatrical knight, Bafta laureate or Much-Loved National Treasure standing. Apart from Gambon, Smith, and Northam, there’s Alan Bates, Stephen Fry, Derek Jacobi, Kristin Scott Thomas, Richard E Grant, Emily Watson, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Kelly Macdonald, Charles Dance, Geraldine Somerville, Ryan Phillippe and Bob Balaban. All the people! So many people! And they all go round and round, round and round in their Gosford Park lives!

One of the crucial facts about Gosford Park is that a lot of these people are playing the servants: part of the legion of butlers, valets, housekeepers, footmen, maids and cooks that this society rested upon. This is a departure from the usual formula for this kind of story, especially as the script treats them as being every bit as interesting as their masters and mistresses. The logistical nightmare of dealing with so many visitors (not normally even considered by filmmakers) is neatly illustrated, as are the various arcane rituals of upstairs-downstairs life.

The film is primarily about the upstairs-downstairs chasm in British society and the way the people on either side of it interacted and were dependent on each other. Screenwriter Julian Fellowes may be a toff himself but the film is firmly on the side of the proles, with those in charge depicted as shallow, callous and self-obsessed. The murder itself seems to have been something of an afterthought, included solely for form’s sake. It’s certainly not especially difficult to work out whodunnit, the clues are fairly obvious. But it allows the film to explore its theme more fully, and gives Stephen Fry the chance to ham it up ever so slightly as a well-meaning but dimwitted police inspector, so let’s not grouse.

Fry’s is only one amongst many well-judged performances, as you might expect from such a cast. Not everyone gets the material they perhaps deserve – Derek Jacobi only seems to have about eight lines, for example – and so there seems to be a good deal of fighting over scraps. Kelly Macdonald is very impressive in the closest thing the film has to a lead role, Michael Gambon makes the most of his chances as the host, and Maggie Smith quietly goes into top gear and starts stealing every scene she appears in.

There’s not much wrong with Gosford Park at all: it’s intelligent, witty, and superbly written and directed. If the sheer size of the ensemble is a little overwhelming at first, well, stick with it, it all sorts itself out eventually. And if the murder-mystery elements are a little straightforward and undercooked, just accept the fact that you’ve been conned into watching a finely observed drama, rather than a period pastiche. A classy piece of work, in every sense of the word.

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